Wednesday, March 23, 2011

love, fear, and the Pareto principle

One thing that always comes up when Techie Boyfriend talks about his work as a code toad/interaction designer is the 80/20 rule: 80% of the features take up only 20% of your total programming time, the other 80% of which is spent fixing bugs you never even expected to have.

This is phenomenon is called the Pareto principle, after an Italian economist who noticed that most of the peas in his garden (80%) were produced by only a handful of super-productive pea pods, while the majority of the pea pods lounged around in the sun growing the other twenty percent of the peas.


INTERN has a friend, let’s call him Egbert, who recently wrote a query letter for his novel. Egbert embarked on the query-writing project with joy and enthusiasm and promptly churned out several decent drafts. Writing these pretty-good drafts took him about two hours.

Soon after Egbert had written these queries, however, he began to fret. He really ought to get some feedback on them before proceeding any further. So he signed up for AbsoluteWrite and AgentQuery and SheWrites and the Nathan Bransford forums and a few other places for good measure. He spent several hours critiquing other peoples’ queries so he wouldn’t look like a critique-mooch, then posted his own for review.

Within a few hours, comments started flowing in. Egbert’s query was pretty good, except for the word “locomotion” which many commenters thought contained too many o’s. Two commenters thought Egbert’s query would certainly lead to requests; one mean-sounding commenter said that after reading this train-wreck of a query, she was dubiuos [sic] that Egbert’s writing career was going anywhere at all.

Egbert fretted over these comments and fretted some more. He stayed up late at night writing query after brand-new query in a desperate attempt to please every single person who had commented. He scoured the web for examples of successful query letters, reading just about every article that had ever been written about the art. Every ten minutes or so he checked all the forums he’d signed up for to see if there were any new comments.

This went on for several days, by the end of which Egbert’s eyes were listless and vacant in their orbital cavities and he had STILL not written the Query to Please All Query Experts.

Still he sat at his laptop and fretted, his forum-checking growing more and more compulsive, until he was no longer a writer but a soul-dead zombie, and the queries coming out of him read more like suicide notes than anything else.


Sometimes you write out of love and sometimes you write out of fear. First drafts, poems, and text messages to your significant other tend to fall effortlessly into the first category. Revisions sometimes drift towards the second, depending on the harshness of your inner critic, but can usually be pulled back.

Query letters, on the other hand, are notorious for ending up in the Fear category, even if they didn’t start out there. By fear, INTERN does mean mortal terror but also fear in the Buddhist sense—aversion to sucking, aversion to having this big stinking lump of a manuscript sitting on your desk for any longer than it needs to.

Egbert has good reason to be intimidated—after all, a lot of the query advice out there says you all but need a PhD in query-writing to do it right. Yes, it’s important to do your research and read QueryShark and get feedback from other writers. But when you’re lashing yourself onwards like an abused sled-dog, your query’s going to smell like Fear.


In Egbert’s case, writing a query was almost a ridiculously perfect illustration of Pareto’s principle. He wrote most of the sentences that ended up in his final query in a handful of inspired minutes. The remaining hours of fretting, forum-checking, and self-flagellation were largely (if not entirely) wasted.

Love and Fear are two very different places to write from. And as plenty of writers will tell you, five minutes in the former is worth a hundred hours in the latter.


In INTERN’s experience, the best thing to do when you find yourself in the fear-zone is to put your boots on and muck around outside until you realize that nobody else in the world except you has their brain in knots over whether or not you write the Query to End All Queries this afternoon. Trust the good 20% to keep you in peas for the summer and screw all the rest. You’re not a sled-dog. You’re a writer.


  1. Thank you for this!! Perfect timing. I am in synopsis fear hell.

    The funny thing is after reading all of the advice, and I've been everywhere your friend has been, I then saw Kristin Nelson's posting of successful queries and it was FASCINATING. First of all, they were WAY MORE than one para on plot. Second, the first line was not some crazy hook that encompassed the entire story in one breathtaking swoop. They were normal descriptions of interesting stories. So there crazy advice givers!

    But I do have a question for intern: Would you say that a publishing credit (literary) should only be included in a query if it is a big name--agni, mo review, vqr, etc and not, say, an online mag? And by should be included, I mean, "would help"?


  2. A very good post. I find myself feeling the same way Egbert did when I have queried my novel. I should just do it and not fret too much.

    Thanks for the advice.

  3. It's important sometimes to take a step back and realize - excellence is an admirable and attainable goal.

    Perfection is not.

  4. Query letters terrify me. This is why I avoid writing them by NEVER FINISHING A DAMN NOVEL!

    At least that's my excuse for today.


  5. Great post. Found this via a tweet by Greg Pincus.

    Poor Egbert. Queries just aren't worth that much stress. In my experience, the ability to be professional, polite, and reasonably concise is (as The Writing Goddess put it) not only an attainable goal, but pretty effective, too. I have a pet theory that knowing how to write a decent business letter also helps...

  6. Beautiful. Feel the flow, people!

    I actually became an indie publisher at the moment the fearful head of QueryPerfection rose like a kraaken from my ocean of potential pitchlines.

    I. just. couldn't. take. it.

  7. What a lovely cautionary tale. That fear zone makes us do so many stupid things. Like ask for too many critiques. You'll always find somebody who hates anything. And groups are like bodies: There's always an a**. Somebody who calls other people trainwrecks. Poor Egbert. I totally relate. I'm glad he used his original sentences. Hope he gets a read.

  8. It helps to remember that the agent on the other end is an intelligent and probably kind human being, not a mystical grinning skull animated by hellish powers bent on annihilating your efforts with exploding eyeball lasers should there be a minor spelling mistake or absent comma after 'Dear x'

  9. I finished the novel but fear the query letter and fear the agent! small genre - Christian Romance and have no idea where to start so put it off idefinitely. wrote novel about 8 years ago. finally just put it on a blog. now working on second. I may never have an agent, never be published, never have a book, but I am writing! so that is something! writing for the job of the story!

  10. You're back! Timing and research is more important than worry and fear. I choose patience over fear. I have no news :) Talk soon.

  11. christine: what is a kraaken? INTERN ought to know since she is supposedly reading a cowboy novel in German. but alas!

  12.'s great to have you back, INTERN.

  13. query writing was the worst part of my writerly endeavors thus far. first drafts? piece of cake? revisions? not a problem. sum the book up in two or three brief paragraphs that engage the reader, introduce the characters, set the stakes and consequences of failure? GACK.

    luckily, i found two people who kept me sane throughout the process: first, a CP who not only is a great query writer, and second, someone from Nathan's Forums whose opinion I respected and who agreed to review my query via forum email.

    to this day I still have an aversion to query writing. :shudder:

    -- Tom

  14. Awesome post. I like how you're informational, motivational, and interesting.